An interview with John Holloway

An interview with John Holloway

Shift magazine interview John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism and Change the World Without Taking Power on the UK riots, anti-austerity stuggles, the Arab spring and more. Originally published in September 2011.

You write in the tradition of autonomist Marxist thought, locating the anti-capitalist struggle at the level of every day life. How were these ideas developed? Starting with a brief outline of the state derivation debate, what was this a reaction against? For anyone who is unfamiliar with your writing, can you explain how these ideas were developed through your work with ‘Common Sense’ and later ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’ and ‘Crack Capitalism’?

Yes, I think that we have to start from the everyday nature of anti-capitalist struggle, to see that resistance to capitalism is an integral part of living in capitalist society. If we can’t do that, then the struggle against capitalism becomes inevitably elitist, and self-defeating. This statement may seem a long way from the state derivation debate of the 1970s, but I don’t think it is. The state derivation debate, which arose in West Germany at the end of the 1960s and which Sol Picciotto and I introduced to English-speaking discussion in our book ‘State and Capital’ (1978), argued that the best way of understanding the capitalist nature of the state is to see it as a particular form of the capital relation, the relation between capital and labour. In other words, in the same way as Marx derived the different forms of capitalist social relations (money, capital, interest and so on) from the more fundamental forms (ultimately, I would now say, from the dual character of labour in capitalist society), so it was necessary to complement that process by deriving the existence of the state as a particular form of social relations from the more fundamental forms of capitalist social relations.

The important thing is that this locates the capitalist nature of the state not in what the state does (its functions) but in its very existence as a social form distinct from other social forms. It is its particularisation that constitutes the state as capitalist. This is obvious in a way: it is the very fact that the state (by its very existence) takes the communal away from us and hands it to paid functionaries that makes the state oppressive and alien, irrespective of what it actually does. From this it follows, I think, that it makes no sense at all to think of changing society through the state. This seems an obvious conclusion, but at the time nobody actually said it, as far as I remember, and some people who had followed the debate then seemed surprised when I made the point explicitly in ‘Change the World’.

For me the important step on from the state derivation debate was to argue that form has to be understood as form-process, as a process of forming social relations, a process of channelling them into patterns compatible with the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Thus the state is a constant process of statification, money is a process of monetisation, abstract labour is a process of abstraction of human activity, and so on. All these categories are conceptualisations of an active struggle that is taking place all the time, an active struggle that permeates the lives of all of us. Thus, to say that the state is a form of capitalist social relations, and to understand form as a process of forming, leads directly to seeing everyday life as an active struggle between this process of forming and a resistance that says “no, we refuse, we will go in a different direction, do things in a different way”. Everyday life, then, is a constant moving in-against-and-beyond capital. (The article which makes the basic step in the argument from form to form-process was a paper called “The State and Everyday Struggle”, which I wrote in 1979 but which wasn’t published in English until 1991, when it was included in Simon Clarke’s book on the ‘State Debate’.)

There were of course other steps along the way, especially the London-Edinburgh Weekend Return Group’s ‘In and Against the State’, where working with Jeannette Mitchell, Cynthia Cockburn and others really pushed me into a different way of thinking about writing, and then the experience of the Edinburgh journal ‘Common Sense’ (with Richard Gunn and Werner Bonefeld as driving force) and the later books on ‘Open Marxism’ (published by Pluto in 1992 and 1995).

I moved to Mexico in 1991 and then came the Zapatista uprising of 1 January 1994, with their call to make the world anew without taking power, and this created such a stimulating new context for thinking and talking about these ideas, constantly animated by discussion with friends, colleagues and students here. From this flowed ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’ and all the discussion that that stirred up, which brought me into touch with lots and lots of exciting groups all over the place. And the constant question of “what do we do? What do we do when the world around us is falling apart?” – which led to ‘Crack Capitalism’.

Elsewhere in this issue we are taking a critical look at the organizational forms of the anti-globalisation movement and asking, as we enter this new round of struggle, what lessons can be learnt? Keeping with this comparative perspective, how in your view can analysis of the state of global relations of capital (crisis) and class contribute to our understanding of how current struggles differ from those of the anti-globalisation movement? Are there practical, organizational implications? What, in the arguments made in your previous work, must be kept and are there areas of the analysis that require further development in response to current/changing conditions?

I see the Days of Rage proclaimed by the various Arab movements from the start of the year as announcing a new phase of struggle/life in-against-and-beyond capital – heralded by the Zapatistas’ Festival of Righteous Rage (Digna Rabia – I tend to translate it as Righteous Rage under the influence of Linton Kwesi Johnson) a couple of years ago. The reproduction of capital in the present crisis can be achieved only through a vicious and probably prolonged attack on the way in which we live, work, play and relate to one another. Capital can survive only by transforming human life on earth, probably with the medium-term consequence that it makes that life (and its own existence) impossible. The great capitalist attack (what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World War, or what is often referred to as neo-liberalism, but it is important to see that it flows from the logic of capital, not from the policy options of governments) is already doing enormous damage.

The very idea of being human, of wanting to be more than a thing, becomes inseparable from rage against the rule of money, rage against that which is destroying humanity. In a world of mass destruction, humanity rages, rationality rages, dignity rages. More and more, we live in a world of rage, but not all that rages is rational, or dignified, or points the way to a future for humanity. Perhaps the question for us (especially after the riots in England) is how we take our place within that tidal wave of rage, whether and how we can point it (or bits of it) in directions that open up a future for humans (and indeed other forms of life). This is not just a question of writing books or answering interview questions but of developing practices that point against-and-beyond capital. Hope lies in the fact that millions and millions of people are already doing that – cracking capitalism. I’ve just read a paper by Kolya Abramsky that is circulating, where he argues that the choice that confronts us now is between dignified and undignified rage: I think that is absolutely right.

You talk about living ‘in, against and beyond’ the dynamics of capitalism, in a constant struggle to live a meaningful life against the enforced meaninglessness of capitalist work, or abstract labour. However, when we push away from capital we enter into insecure and uncharted territory. To free ourselves of the limits of work, or to refuse to toe the line, is that not a rather privileged move?

It might be a privileged move – in many cases it is – but I don’t think we should dismiss privilege so easily. Privilege may be a responsibility. If some of us live in circumstances where it is easier for us to disobey than it is for others, it would be absurd to argue that therefore we should obey, submit ourselves to the disciplines of capitalist labour.

But in fact it is not (or not just) like that. For most people, being freed from labour is not a matter of choice, but a result of being pushed out. To be unemployed or precariously employed is not generally a conscious option, but the question is then what we do with that and how we see it. People who are pushed out of the capitalist system of social cohesion are generally forced to develop other forms of social support, other ways of living. In spite of all the difficulties, these may be embryonic forms of a different society and the real, material bases of anti-capitalist revolt. The more radical piquetero groups in Argentina, for example, turned from campaigning for more employment (“the right to work”!) to fighting for creating meaningful forms of activity (doing) outside capitalist labour (most clearly articulated by the MTD Solano). And it is the creation of structures of mutual support by the excluded, particularly in the cities, that has provided the material basis for most of the important anti-capitalist revolts in recent years (in Latin America and elsewhere).

To us, it seems like the everyday instances of antagonism that you describe in your work, the girl reading the book in the park instead of going to work, are rather small victories. Considering the widespread resistance to abstract labour that you describe, and that we are currently experiencing with the increased militancy of workers and students, does your focus on these individual actions not lack ambition?

Not at all. The important thing is the lines of continuity, the lines of potential, the trails of gunpowder, that lead from the girl in the park to the 15th June in Syntagma Square or the Zapatista uprising. If we do not see and nourish those lines of continuity, we lock ourselves into a ghetto of despair.

We are finding it difficult to conceptualise how this widespread everyday resistance to abstract labour, the ‘scream’, can manifest as anything more than a form of moral or ethical lifestylism? Without a strategy for collective action is your argument not at risk of, at best, being interpreted as a form of lifestyle politics and at worse leading us into a false sense of camaraderie or community based on an unarticulated and abstract notion of rejection?

I don’t understand. Is the revolt in Greece not a scream, or the Zapatistas’ ¡Ya basta!, or the “que se vayan todos” (editor’s note: “all of them must go”) in Argentina, or the occupation of the squares by the indignados in Spain, or indeed the Russian revolution, or any revolt that you care to mention? And where did all those massive social screams originate if not in the daily unperceived struggles and discontents of thousands and thousands of people? And how can we understand the links if not by focusing on the lines of continuity? The point of talking about cracks rather than autonomies is that cracks move, often unpredictably and at lightning speed.

The overlap in values between the UK Coalition government’s discourse of community empowerment under the Big Society initiative and anarchist, autonomist politics (see Percy’s article in issue 12 of Shift) is a good example of how our actions and ‘alternatives’ can be incorporated by the state. How can the “against and beyond” of your notion of “in and against and beyond” be emphasized by those involved in community organizing in this political climate? How does it translate into practical action as we fight cuts in state services with alternative visions of social provision?

The state is the movement of the incorporation of alternatives – that is what it means to talk of the state as a form of capital. How can we resist this process? Probably only by going in the opposite direction, by communising. To think of capital as a form of social relations is to say that power is not a question of who-whom (Lenin’s brilliantly dreadful formulation) but of how. Capital is a how, a way of doing things, and the only way we can fight it is by confronting it with different hows. Our hows are the movement of communising, a coming together and determining from the bottom up, which clashes as it moves with the falsehood of community empowerment. Any process of determining from below will quickly come into conflict with property and money, whereas community empowerment promoted from above is premised upon respect for those forms which make community empowerment impossible.

There are already many attempts to translate this sort of idea into practical action against the cuts. I think the important thing is to show in practice what the alternatives mean. As far as possible, we should not defend ourselves in their terms but assert clearly what we are (often already) doing. In education, for example, many of us already take as a starting point the view that the only education that makes sense is one that points towards a future for humanity, and therefore aims at the destruction of capitalism. Sometimes we feel afraid to state what is probably obvious to most people, but often it is important to state the obvious. The best defence is usually attack: attack the schools, attack the universities, attack the hospitals.

With regards to the latter point, how do you think this analysis applies to the recent ‘riots’ that were sparked by the shooting of Mark Duggan. These were clearly a reaction to state oppression and the exclusion of communities from capitalist wealth, but there were arguably regressive elements to many of the actions that were taken. Whilst these actions can be understood as antagonistic to the stranglehold of capitalism over our lives and cities, can we understand last weeks riots as part of a progressive, anti-capitalist struggle?

What the English riots make clear is the terrible danger of a world to which rage is more and more clearly central. It is only through rage (the scream) that social change can come about, but rage is terribly dangerous. It can flow very easily against us, into terribly destructive forms. On the one hand, I rejoice in the explosion of anger and the looting of the looters, on the other hand the riots make clear the destructive potential of social anger. I think Kolya Abramsky is right in pointing to the fact that our opportunities for creating a better world may be momentary. There is a sense in which the more negative aspects of the riots are an expression of the failure of the British students to do what the Chilean students are now doing, just as it might be argued that the appalling violence in Mexico today is due in part to our failure to seize the opportunity opened up by the Zapatista revolt. The war we must win is the war of rage and I suspect that the only way we can do it is through the nitty-gritty movement of communising. Crack capitalism, in other words.

In a recent interview with Variant, the interviewers picked up on your critique of political engagement with democratization, if the latter exists without a commitment to the abolition of “money-capital-state-abstract labour”. Yet democratization is at the heart of the radical political ruptures we are currently witnessing – with a crisis of state power (dictators toppled in the Middle East and North Africa and liberal democracy in crisis in Greece and Spain) coupled with experiments in participatory democracy within the political movements that have pushed this crisis. For us, these are exciting as they have a mass element that has been missing in the political movements of our lifetime. Do you think the Real Democracy movement in Spain, or the democratization movements of the Arab World contain this element of rejection of “money-capital-state-abstract labour”? What can we take from these experiences in developing the radical politics you have in mind?

I agree entirely that these are very exciting movements. Real Democracy is a threshold-concept (as indeed are all the great concepts of struggle). It opens a door and invites us to go further. We can refuse the invitation and stay where we are, with the empty abstraction of democracy, as no doubt some will, or we can accept it (as will many others) and think what real democracy could look like. And there we see that the experiences of Tahrir Squate, of the Puerta del Sol and Syntagma and so many other squares in Spain and Greece point us clearly in the direction of a collective process of determining from below, a process of communising. And this movement of communising becomes immediately an attack on determination by the rich, by capital, by money. Inevitably, I think, it clashes with the rule of money-capital-state-abstract labour. I assume that people who prefer to talk just of democracy (Hardt and Negri, for example) realise this, but prefer to let the movement itself discover that money stands in the way of real democracy. I can see an argument for that, but I see the process of theoretical reflection as part of the struggle to go as far as we can along the road that has been opened. Part of the struggle against re-integration of the movement is to say clearly that real democracy is and must be a frontal assault on the power of money.

The great power of the movement in Greece is that it makes as clear as clear could be the frontal opposition between Real Democracy and the Power of Money. You’ve probably seen the video showing, on the one hand, the thousands of protesters in Syntagma Square, and on the other, just a few metres away, the democratically elected representatives of the state grovelling to the Power of Money. Dignified rage, righteous rage, bright light of hope in a dark night.

John Holloway is a Professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla in Mexico. He is the author of Change the World Without Taking Power (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010), and Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2010)